Camp Notes from the Plains
Who is running ahead in the quarterback competition?
War Eagle, everybody! The two-a-days portion of Auburn fall camp is nearly over, and next Auburn will begin with preparations for the season opener against Oregon. As always this time of year, there are a few surprises and a few disappointments.
First off, I must apologize for being AWOL in this space for the last 6 weeks. Real life and career intervened, and I was just not able to spend the time my usual season previews require. I suppose I could have thrown a few things together, copying from the opinions of others, but I don’t see the point in that. I have always tried to voice my own opinion, rather than just parroting the newspapers.
As expected, the defensive line has won most of the wars up front in fall camp. Auburn has 3 starters that would have been NFL draft picks had they left school last spring, and Derrick Brown has been named a first team All-American on some lists this summer. There have been a few nicks and dings, but I’d worry if there were not in fall camp.
I’ve seen different philosophies in fall camp, depending upon the program and the situation. Some coaches, particularly those whose team doesn’t have a lot of depth, will try to minimize the contact in August. The idea is that all hands need to be on deck in September. Others, I’m thinking of Tommy Tuberville, work the team as hard as they can in the fall, hoping to produce a team that will be tough all the way through November.
Tuberville’s teams were notorious for stumbling wounded out of the gate and struggling early. I’m remembering ugly wins over teams like Appalachian State and Wyoming, ugly losses to Southern Cal and Georgia Tech, and a narrow escape from Kansas State. Auburn lost early games in 2007 to South Florida and Mississippi State at home before regrouping. It is worth noting that Tuberville’s teams at Auburn had 20 wins in November, vs. only 10 losses. That’s with Georgia and Alabama on the schedule every year.
Auburn will have new starting linebackers across the board this season, but by most accounts the reason the defense has been so dominant in fall camp has been stellar linebacker play. In the middle, Kenny Britt knows the defense well, and this unit may well be faster and more athletic than the units that did so well the past 3 seasons.
Auburn returns a veteran secondary, and it has been quite unusual to find any open receivers down the field in scrimmages. Auburn stumbled at times last season with grabbing and pass interference. I think with more experience and with Wesley McGriff back coaching the secondary, those problems won’t manifest this season.
With kicker Anders Carlson and punter Arryn Siposs returning, Auburn should have great special teams in 2019. The only worry in fall camp has been a number of dropped punts. My vote is that whoever is dropping the least balls should start. Of particular note has been that Anders Carlson has been nailing the long field goal kicks and the pressure kicks at the end of practice.
Auburn should field a solid, all-senior offensive line this season. This unit was used and abused at times last season but improved as the year went on. Depth remains a problem, but Auburn now has at least 3 backups it can turn to if injuries happen this season.
One of the big surprises this fall for me has been the play of Arizona State transfer H-back/tight end Jay Jay Wilson. I don’t think any of the preseason projected depth charts had him contributing much this year. I figured he’d need a year to get used to the physicality of the SEC, having come from the PAC-12. I was apparently wrong. From all reports, Jay Jay is very physical at the point of attack and has great hands. If Wilson doesn’t start against Oregon, it will be because other guys on the team know the playbook better.
Wide receiver might be the most disappointing group in fall camp. Word is that guys can’t get open, and that balls are being dropped regularly. Some of that is to be expected as every one of Auburn’s projected starters have been held out for part or all of fall camp due to injuries. The speed guys like Eli Stove, Will Hastings and Anthony Schwartz have yet to have live reps, and Seth Williams has missed time as well.
Auburn should be loaded at running back. JaTarvious Whitlow is said to have improved since last season. Kam Martin is having a good camp. Malik Miller seems to have improved, and he’s long been Auburn’s most consistent pass blocker and receiver out of the backfield. Younger guys like Shawn Shivers, DJ Williams and Harold Joiner have done well in camp, also.
All eyes are on the quarterback race between redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and true freshman Bo Nix. Nix has been the first one on the field with the starters in recent days, and some in the press have anointed Nix as the starter for game one. I think I will wait on an official announcement from head coach Gus Malzahn. My concerns about Nix from the spring game remain, in that I felt like Gatewood did a better job of taking care of the ball while still being effective. We really haven’t seen Gatewood run the ball, except near the end of the Purdue game in the Music City Bowl. He made some Boilermakers look silly!
Oregon will likely sell out to stop Auburn’s running game. That’s pretty much true of any team playing against the Malzahn offense. If you allow the offense to run the ball and control the clock, it’s hard to keep up with Auburn on the scoreboard. It may be that the coaches believe that they will need the arm of Bo Nix to keep the defense honest. I worry, though. The guys Nix is practicing with now, won’t be the guys likely starting in Arlington in a couple of weeks.
I suppose I’m remembering 2010. I remember that Cam Newton was not considered a polished passer, and early teams sold out to stop the run. By game 4, Auburn was running against those stacked fronts and blitzes and moving the ball on the ground, anyway. Auburn piled up the yards and finished with both Newton and Michael Dyer going over 1,000 yards. I’d argue that Auburn has better runners and receivers on the roster no, than in that year.
I plan to get back into my regular swing of Thursday posts leading up to the start of the season, and I’ll be in place with an open thread for the Oregon game. Wow, I can’t wait for football season to start!